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02 May 2014

Is the Church failing ex-offenders?

Is the Church failing ex-offenders?

What do a former speechwriter for David Cameron, an ex-cabinet minister and a criminal-turned-vicar have in common? When it comes to showing God’s kingdom to ex-offenders and prisoners, they are united in their belief in the importance and scope of such work. 

It’s a great illustration of God’s Church working together to implement the Great Commission. 

After all, Paul himself was a prisoner. And we don’t need to look too far to find a biblical reference to prisons ministry. A quick glance at Matthew 25:34-36 refers to Jesus’s return spelling the rewarding of those who had time for the hungry and thirsty, the outcast, the sick and… those in prison. 

But it appears not enough is being done. 

Figures show less than 10 per cent of churches involved with Alpha courses find the time to work with some of society’s most vulnerable. And that’s just Alpha-related churches. Estimates say there are just short of 40,000 churches in the UK. 

At least if the Church is not noticing the need then the government seems to be. Last year the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, unveiled his Transforming Rehabilitation policy to tackle reoffending. Ministry of Justice figures show almost half of all prisonleavers reoffended within 12 months – for those serving less than a year that figure rose to almost 58 per cent. 

Grayling’s idea sees private and voluntary groups working together to tackle re-offending. 

There is never a better time for the Church to get involved. 

Rewind six years and Danny Kruger was writing speeches for David Cameron. As chief speechwriter to the then prime minister-in-waiting, he used what sparse free time he had available to help offenders through his charity Only Connect, founded in 2006. 

The crime prevention charity provides training, support and creative opportunities for young people at risk, as well as prisoners and ex-offenders.

Danny now works full-time for Only Connect as its chief executive.

Each year they have contact with 300 prisoners and ex-offenders as well as 1,000 school pupils. 

Danny said: “We think the systems that are supposed to serve society don’t work very well - particularly the rehabilitation work managed by the criminal justice system. 

“The re-offending rate is still very high and an increasing proportion of crime is committed by repeat offenders. 

“If we can tackle re-offending we can make a real dent in crime figures. 

“The probation system is not equipped to provide love, compassion, or moral direction, neither is it equipped to be patient and flexible.” 

A recent report from New Philanthropy Capital showed Only Connect had more than halved expected rates of re-offending with those with whom it works – saving billions of pounds too for the taxpayer. 

Danny said there were a number of factors preventing a larger number of churches getting involved with such work. 

“Asking people in church to accommodate people who live quite chaotic lives is going to be a handful for anyone. 

“Some might think ‘I don’t want this person volunteering on the crèche rota – I don’t know what he/she might have done’. We have a responsibility to overcome all these questions. 

“The response of the Church to the call of Matthew 25 is at best patchy, at worst feeble and inadequate.”
– Jonathan Aitken

Former cabinet minister and Conservative MP Jonathan Aitken was jailed for 18 months in 1999 for perjury and perverting the course of justice. He has since re-committed to his Christian faith and studied theology at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford. He was equally surprised about the lack of priority the Church gave to meeting the needs of ex-offenders. 

“On the whole the response of the Church to the call of Matthew 25 is at best patchy, at worst feeble and inadequate. 

“There are some excellent individual church ministries including Caring For Ex-Offenders, Stepping Stones Trust and the Catholic Society of St Vincent de Paul. 

“I think church leaders believe it’s better to leave it up to the experts. 

“If you consider prison chaplains, then they do an excellent job, but if you look at the Church, you have to say this a failure to carry out Christ’s commands.” 

Aitken admitted there are certain “difficulties” to churches getting involved but that they were not “insurmountable”. 

“My own Church – St Matthew’s in Westminster – has a very effective ministry for prisoners and ex-offenders. You need some spiritual discipline and determination to do this work though. 

“The tide is slowly turning but it isn’t turning fast enough. The response of the Church frequently disappoints me, but despite that, I am also enthused by the areas of excellence I find. 

“If there was ever a time the Church needed to reach out with a loving hand it’s at the point of release from prison.” 

Aitken – who regularly visits prisoners as well as mentoring some - hopes his background allows him to relate to offenders in a way some others maybe cannot. 

“When I address any prison audience, I begin by telling them I have been where they are, in prison, and that despite my posh accent I understand what it’s like. At that moment I get double the attention I might otherwise get.” 

The Rev Paul Cowley is on the staff at Holy Trinity Brompton and founded Caring for Ex-Offenders. This re-integrates offenders back into society through the local Church; providing the necessary training for church leaders to help them do this. 

He is also executive director of the William Wilberforce Trust which has an anti-human trafficking unit, a homeless drop-in, debt counselling and provides courses on money, debt, and depression. 

At the age of 15 he was expelled from school, and ended up living on the street before turning to crime. He spent a year in prison after being caught by police in a stolen vehicle. 

The Rev Cowley – who also spent 15 years in the Armed Forces – said: “The hardest part of working with ex-offenders is they are often dysfunctional and broken. A lot of them have lost hope in themselves. 

“Statistics show 70 per cent of prisoners have some form of mental illness, whether that is self-harm, depression, or addiction. You’ve got people who want to change but find it hard to. Trying to find churches that will engage with them is difficult.” 

He recalls an experience where he told an ex-offender to connect with a church upon release from prison – but the offender wrote back saying he did attend but wasn’t made to feel welcome. It was an experience which motivated him to start the ministry he did – including Alpha for Prisons. 

The Rev Cowley said such work forces him to ask why more of the 7,500 Alpha-running churches in the UK do not feel they have time for this ministry. Just 600 are involved. 

“Most of it is fear which stops churches getting involved; or they don’t see it as a priority. 

“The more churches we get on board, the more impact we can make to help those coming out of prison; and start to reduce re-offending,” he said. 

“Once people are involved, they see it’s not as scary and all-consuming as they thought it was.”

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